Nonfiction November Week 3: Expertise

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

This prompt took me down a few rabbit holes (in a good way) and forced me to take a good objective look at what I’ve been reading in terms of POC-related authors, topics and titles. To that end, I’ve collected many of the POC titles that I’ve read and reviewed on my blog over the past few years, certainly not as a method of boasting or as positioning me as any sort of expert, but more as a reference for others who may also be interested in digging a little deeper into this subject. 

I’m also rather hoping that others may also have lists of related titles that they might want to share… There’s always room for more books on the TBR, don’t you agree? 

Enjoy!

COMPLETED AFRICAN-AMERICAN RELATED NF TITLES (from last couple of years): 

AFRICAN NF:

(Now, I know this is NF November, but sometimes I think that fiction reads can really complement some NF reading so here are some recommendations that you might try…) 

COMPLETED AFRICAN-AMERICAN FICTION:

COMPLETED AFRICA FICTION:

TBR AFRICAN-AMERICAN NON-FICTION:

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander
  • The Education of a WASP – Lois Stalvey
  • Go, Tell Michelle: African American Women Write to the new First Lady – Barbara A. Seals Nevergold and Peggy Brooks-Bertram (eds)
  • The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color in a New Millennium – Kathy Russell-Cole
  • Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America  – Charisse Jones
  • The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America – Nicholas Lemann
  • Human Cargo – Matthew Crampton
  • Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris
  • We Gon Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation – Jeff Chang
  • In the Land of Jim Crow – Ray Sprigle (1949 – earlier version of “Black Like Me”)
  • Writing from the Underground Railway – William Still (ed.) 

TBR AFRICAN (AND OTHER COUNTRIES’) NON-FICTION:

  • They Poured Fire on Us: The Story of Three Lost Boys from the Sudan – Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, Benjamin Ajak (with Judy A. Bernstein)
  • Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-1945 – Stephen Bourne
  • My Traitor’s Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face his Country, his Tribe and his Conscience – Rian Malan
  • A Walk around the West Indies – Hunter Davies 
  • Mr. Loverman – Bernardine Everisto
  • White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism – Robin DiAngelo

TBR AFRICAN-AMERICAN FICTION:

  • Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

TBR AFRICAN FICTION:

  • The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears – Dinaw Mengestu (F)

FOR FUTURE READING:

For the other nonfiction November posts, check out these:

Many thanks to the hosts:

September 2019 Reading Review

A rather good reading month, as it turned out (despite the initial craziness of back-to-school). I’m having (and enjoying) a big focus on the TBR pile right now (hopefully, this will continue until the end of the year), and also an ongoing craze on NF… I’m loving it all. 

  • Total books read:        12 (including 2 x halfway-through-DNFs)
  • Total pages read:        2,886 (av. 240)
  • NF: 9 (75% of total)      
  • F: 3 (25% of total)
  • TBR: 9.
  • Total % TBR for year to date: 54%. <takes a bow>
  • Library: 3 (including 1x ILL).  
  • POC author/topic(s): 1. (Oh dear.)   
  • Male to Female: 5 males + 5 females + 2 of mixed genders.
  • DNFs (new for this month): 2. (I’m getting better at this.) 
  • Oldest title: 1951. 
  • Longest title (re: page count): 340pp.
  • Shortest title (re: page count) (excluding DNFs): 122pp.

Here’s what I read in September:

Now that October is here (and September, to me, has to have been the longest month in the entire year), I’m looking forward to some gradually cooling temperatures, slightly fewer daylight hours, and the steady routine of the university semester. 

Plus – I have this horde of books from the recent FoL Book Sale. <rubs hands with glee>

Merry Hall – Beverley Nichols (1951)

WARNING: GRUMPY REVIEW AHEAD. Nichols’ fans may want to avert their eyes. :-}

As sometimes occurs, I’ve been reading but the actual titles haven’t really been lending themselves to a great deal of critical thinking and higher-level commentary as do some others. <jk> That (combined with a limited amount of time) means that every now and then, you’ll have a survey-type post of recent reads. This, my friend, is one of those times. 

Let’s begin with the pretty-awful-terrible reading experience of Beverley Nichol’s “Merry Hall”. Published in 1951, this is a collection of magazine columns (I think) written by Nichols when he bought a rundown mansion out in the English countryside. Others have read this (and his other titles) and reported it as charming and funny, so that is what I was rather expecting. However, it was not to be. (And it was not to be by a really long shot. A miles-long shot, in fact.) 

It started off ok. Nichols had some glimpses of charm here and there, but as the book progressed (along with the refurbishing of the house and the garden), I found him to be quite an awful person. He was such a snob and was riddled with class awareness giving the impression that he was above everyone else (especially the workers from the village who actually did most of the heavy lifting in this renovation). He was also uncomfortably racist in how he described the people who surrounded him and don’t even get me started on his attitude to women… 

I know. I know… It was published in 1951 so wouldn’t these classist/racist/misogynistic attitudes have been more accepted during that time? I considered that line of thought, but then remembered that there were other authors who also were writing and publishing during those years who didn’t have that same approach to the other humans on earth.

Think of E.B. White, for example. He didn’t view the world in those terms at all, so I don’t think it really holds that you should excuse Nichols for his narrow-minded attitude to others as “part of that time”. My argument is that IF these attitudes were part of that time, then wouldn’t everybody have a trace of them somewhere in their writing (if they published their work then)? And “everybody” doesn’t.

And therein lies the rub. I think that other people may have the right idea (that previous well-established attitudes and beliefs fall out of favor over time), but to me, I just don’t agree that Nichols was just being a product of the 40s and 50s. I think he was actually just being a selfish twittish snob who had too much money, not enough education and not enough to do. 

So, despite the fact that LOADS of other people out in bloggerland love Nichols, I’m afraid I’m going to have to agree to disagree on that. He had some good descriptions of his garden and the plants, but GRR. I just couldn’t stomach the rest of the book so ended up with a DNF. I hope the Nichols fans can forgive me.  

(See my next post for the next reading review. Very different from Nichols!)

Vacationland – John Hodgman (2017)

Bought upon a recommendation from the trusty “What’s Nonfiction?” blog, I bought this book without knowing much about it or the author. However, tastes align between what I like and the choices of What’s Nonfiction, so it came into my grubby little mitts. And then I read it, and thought “meh”.

So I put it away and even put it into the pile to take to the library, but I couldn’t help feeling that I’d missed something in my first read, so I rescued it from the library-donation pile and started to read it again. This time, I got it and it was a completely different read than the first time. (Why is that? Who knows? May have been in the wrong mood or stressed out a bit (start of the semester) or…or…)

However, I am so glad that I pulled it out for another read as this time, it was super. The vagaries of the human mind (or perhaps it’s only my human mind!) To the read itself:

I knew it was essays of a personal nature from Hodgman and I knew that he was a contributor to The Daily Show on TV, but apart from that, I knew nada, but I don’t think this was detrimental to the second read. (I’m just going to chalk up the first read experience to poor star alignment or similar.)

In a series of really well-written essays, Hodgman relates some of his experiences when he inherits/buys his parents’ old house in rural Massachusetts and then when his family decide to buy a third house in Maine. (I know – Hodgman is well aware of how privileged he is (re: income and circumstances) and accepts the name for his humor as branded by a friend: “privilege comedy”… Despite this, the essays that he writes are memories that are sensitive and personal, while also being funny tinged with a little oddity here and there.

It’s rather as though I’d happen to meet a friend of a friend at a coffee shop, and in the course of a fairly normal conversation with this person, he is relating these memories as they come up. He is a very relatable person (despite his acknowledged privilege) and when I had turned that last page, I was saddened as I didn’t really want the conversation to come to an end.

His descriptions of the house, his neighbors and friends and what he gets up to when he’s in the area vary from quite typical to the rather strange to the plain just funny. (I’m particularly thinking of the time he and a friend are making their cairns in a stream one sunny afternoon, but there are more instances of humor than just that one…)

Honestly, the best way that I could describe this read for you would be to say that I wish I could actually know Hodgman to really meet up in a coffee shop with him and some friends. He’s an intelligent and good writer who knows how to tell a good story.

Interestingly (and Hodgman must have known this when he titled this book), Vacationland (already one of the official slogans for Maine) is also the title of an independent “gay-themed” (Wikipedia) movie about two high school boys who have a crush on each other but have difficulties due to the town wherein they live. (Absolutely nothing to do with this book or Hodgman, but just an interesting piece of trivia.)

Loved it and I’m very glad that I went back for a second read. I think you’d like it as well.

Pandora’s Daughters: The Secret History of Independent Women – Jane Robinson (2002)

“I cannot but… condemn the great negligence of Parents, in letting the fertile ground of their Daughters lie fallow, yet send the barren Noddles of their sons to the University, where they stay for no other purpose than to fill their empty Sconces and make a noise in the country…”

Hannah Wooley, Gentlewomen’s Companion (1675). 

Plucked from the TBR pile (go me!), this turned out to be a really interesting nonfiction read covering some of history’s notable women, both famous and not-so-famous, mainly U.K. and a few in the Colonies. Going back as far 25 centuries ago (!), Robinson compiles some of the names and lives of women who have worked hard to have careers (both honest and otherwise) in the name of survival (for many) and independence (for all). 

Robinson’s introduction posits the idea that, for many readers of today, the idea of female entrepreneurs and business people seems only to have really emerged and flourished during the age of Queen Victoria, but using solid research (including many first-person accounts), the author demonstrates women have been running innovative businesses for much longer than that. 

And it’s a fascinating read… Seriously. I’ve done quite a bit of reading of women’s history over the years, but this book introduced me to loads of impressive and new-to-me women, so perhaps they’ll be some new people for you to meet as well. 

The list of business women of whom Robinson makes mention includes those in a wide range of occupations, from engineers and surgeons to plumbers and pirates to an Orcadian wind-seller and a Royal Marine. The breadth of career choices would make any high school careers counsellor go into conniptions with joy, and it’s extra-amazing when it’s put into its historical context. 

 Since there were just so many interesting women about whom I learned, I thought it would work better if I gave you guys a list of just some of these fascinating people: 

JOAN DANT (c. 1631-1715) , Quaker, widow of Spitalfields weaver. Peddler in hosiery and haberdashery. Started off selling door-to-door (with goods on her back in a box). Ended up building a significant import/export business based in London, Brussels and Paris. “I got it by the rich,” she said, “and I mean to leave it to the poor.” She did. 

CATHERINE DESHAYES DE MONVOISON (d. 1680) aka “la Voisin”. Professional poisoner who sold her arsenical potions (named “inheritance powders”) to jealous ladies of the court of Louis XIV. Instrumental in the rather too-convenient deaths of various husbands who stood in the way of King Louis and his various mistresses. Convicted as a witch and burned. 

And you just have to look up the AMAZING tale of Merry “Cutpurse” Moll (or properly called Mary Frith), born in Aldgate in 1584. Or APHRA BEHN, an early spy in England (or was she?…).

ANN BONNY AND MARY READ – early pirates on the open seas around Jamaica. Wore men’s clothing and fell in with notorious pirate “Calico Jack” and his sea-faring criminal spree. Ended up being convicted as pirates, the penalty of which was death by hanging. But, they both declared themselves pregnant (which gave them some immunity and time). Probably Mary died of child-fever in jail (prior to baby’s birth) and no one’s sure of what happened to co-pirate Ann. 

“…all women of whatever age, rank, profession or degree, whether virgin, maid or widow, that shall from and after [this] ACT, impose upon, seduce, and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s subjects by means of scent, paints, cosmetics, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes or bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the Law now in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanour…” (1770 Statute against the perfidy of women (George III).  

Don’t forget England’s first (recorded) female soldier and marine, HANNAH SNELL in the eighteenth century who ended up on a sloop-man-of-war going to the East Indies to fight at various places (including the siege of Pondicherry where she received twelve wounds). She ended up dying on the boat after serving five years at sea, with no one knowing until her death that she was actually a woman. She’s in the Royal Museum of Marines in England. Go her!!

“A learned Women is thought to be a comet, that bodes mischief, when ever it appears. To offer to the World the liberal Education of Women is to deface the Image of God in Man, it will make Women so high, and men so low, like Fire in the House-top, it will set the whole world in a Flame…  (Mrs. Baathsua Makin (c. 1600-1676), An Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen (1673).

MARY SEACOLE: Seacole was a freed African slave/doctress who was living in Kingston, Jamaica, when this story starts. Married to a Scottish guy, the couple start to run a successful hotel on the island. She then ends up visiting relatives in England and then traveled the world exploring. As part of her travels, she learned about Florence Nightingale and her work at the front in Crimea. Seacole really wanted to work with Nightingale’s group, but Nightingale refused to interview her (for being a person of African descent), so looking for other options, Seacole arranged to find an investor who then enabled her to open a hotel in Balaclava (close to the battle front) where she not only hosted guests but also gained nursing skills for anyone who needed it, regardless of “sides”. Mary died in London, and her grave is still tended to and honored by the Jamaican Nurses’ Association I wonder where her grave is…?

Books to find for future reading:

  • Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave. Aphra Behn. 1688.
  • Emigration and Transportation – Caroline Chisholm. 1847.
  • The A.B.C. of Colonization – Caroline Chisholm. 1850. (Very intriguing as a historian document. Was it a kids’ book?)
  • A Lady’s Voyage Round the World – Ida Pfeiffer. 1852. 
  • Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands – Mary Seacole. 1854. 
  • Mariana Starke (1762-1838) pioneer of independent travel. Wrote Travels on the Continent – set template for travel guide books after that. 

A Silver-Plated Spoon – John, Duke of Bedford (1959)

I seem to be rather enamored with biographies and autobiographies at the moment, and so, as part of my goal of reading more from my own TBR, I pulled this title down from the shelf. I had found this volume at one of the FoL book sales, and bought it as I was intrigued by (a) the fact that I remember being taken for several visits to this guy’s family (and stately) home as a child, and (b) I was also curious about the reason why it had shown up in West Texas, 5,500 miles away from the place it described. 

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this book, and it turned out in the end, I was actually pretty impressed with how proficiently it was written and the author’s witty sense of humor. (Very dry.) 

I grew up in Bedford, a middle-sized market English town that has a history of hundreds of years. Despite many years being educated there, I was still pretty ignorant about some of its local historical figures (this family being one). However, I’d wondered about this family title (Duke of Bedford), and since they also lived in the same county (I think), what their connection was to the town of Bedford. This read clarified all that for me.

John, the Duke of Bedford author, writes a fairly straightforward recounting of his family’s long history. His family records can take his descendants back for hundreds of years with a fairly constant peripheral relationship with the royalty of the time. (A few queens and kings even stayed the night in their ancestral home, Woburn Abbey, which fascinated me. How on earth would you prepare your house for an overnight stay of the Queen?) 

So, there’s a lot of family and local history retold in this book – interesting for me, but perhaps not so interesting for others with no connection to the area. I was impressed with the fact that the Russell family (who make up the Duke connection) had kept accurate records of their ancestors for so many years and, having watched my father labor for years over our own (slightly more modest) family tree, was well aware of how much work tracing such a personal history can be for someone dedicated to the cause. 

John’s (the Duke in question) childhood had been isolated and he had had a lonely upbringing with a very distant father (personally speaking). However, John doesn’t seem to hold a huge grudge towards his parent (although he certainly doesn’t give him much slack), and so the majority of the book puts a lot of focus on how much he (and his wife) have worked on turning his stately home into a profitable concern instead of the partly ruinous mound of bricks that his earlier relatives had left to molder. I really appreciated how this Duke had seen the value in renovating the large house whilst also keeping it historically accurate. (It was very sweet actually.) 

So, this was an interesting interlude going back in time for an important local family from the area where I grew up. (Curiously, their family’s link to Bedford is not with my nearby market town of the same name. It’s to do with some real estate in Bedford Square in the City of London.) 

This was actually a far better read than I had anticipated, and I’m glad that the title had somehow made it onto the TBR (and now it’s off!). 

The question now remains: what title to read next? 

Woburn Abbey.

General Catch-Up…

With the arrival of December comes the end-of-the-semester projects such as grading and finishing up some work writing and looking forward (very looking forward) to the holiday break.

I’ve been so lucky this semester in terms of having some really hard-working students who are willing to learn what I’m trying to teach, so I think it’s safe to say that I’ve learned as much from them as they have from me. I’m only in my second year of college teaching, and I want them to have the best college writing experience that I can possibly give them, so I’m always reading how to improve my teaching, both in and out of the classroom.

Finals Week starts this Friday, so that means that classes are all wrapped up for the most part now. No more power-points (which has been the name of the game this semester); now, I just need to get them organized in files on my computer ready for next semester, finish up the grades, and hopefully, have a much more relaxed schedule.

Plans over Christmas mean not much, really. Superhero and I have quite a few days off work, so we’ll be putting up the decorations (nothing too crazy but it’s fun), and then just hanging out until the new year. May be some small travel, but it’s up in the air right now, but if we stay or if we go, it’s fine either way.

This last time last year I was about to have surgery on my ankle which rather put a damper on things, so no surgery this year means a much more relaxing time off (for both me and for the Superhero – he won’t have to drive me around everywhere!)

I’ve been reading, and so here’s a couple of reviews of two titles that didn’t make it on to the blog proper just yet. They’re both good reads – just haven’t had the time/energy to compile a proper review. (I must admit that I had a better read of one more than other.)

Quiet Girl in a Noisy World by Debbie Tung. Just like it says on the tin, this is a graphic novel about a young woman coming to realize (and accept) her introvert tendencies. It’s like a more personal Quiet (Susan Cain), but with lots of pictures. I’m torn about these “quiet books”.

Yes, I might be more of a quiet person than other people, but I don’t consider it to be a pathological weakness (which is sometimes the feeling that I get from some authors about the topic). I’m not weird (others may disagree!), I think that there are plenty of people like me, and luckily, I think the world is becoming a lot more accepting of us non-noisy folks.

I do admit that I may feel like this perhaps because (a) I’m old enough to not be that concerned about what other people think about me, and (b) the world knows more about how different people view the environment and the people who surround them. When Cain’s book first came out, was she the first author to really focus on this aspect of people? I seem to remember there being quite a kerfuffle about her non-fiction book at the time.

The second title that I’ve finished was a charming nature-focused book by Sy Montgomery called How to be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals. This was a shorter read, wherein Montgomery recalls thirteen animals with whom she’s had friendships of one sort or another. What was really good about this read were the lithographic illustrations by Rebecca Green. Just a sweet book to read, really.

I’ve also just finished a great non-fiction read about Joseph Lister and his impact on Victorian surgery, which was great. However, I’m going to put together a longer review about that…

Speaking of longer, I’m currently reading Alex Haley’s Roots, which is close to 1,000 pages. For some reason, I’m not hyperventilating about the length of this book, but I must admit that it would probably be easier to read on a Kindle. 🙂

The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London – Christopher Skaife (2018)

Having heard a mention of this book on NPR, I happened to come across it in the New Books section at the library, and immediately picked it up to check out and read. It was close to perfect for me and reminded me of just sitting down to a cup of tea with this charming author.

Being a ravenmaster (or person in charge of the ravens at the Tower) is quite a new job title, despite the long history of the location. People have only been given the title since the late 1960’s – before that, staff (i.e. the Beefeaters*) would look after the ravens, but it was put under the responsibilities of the quartermaster (or similar).

And it’s the little (and surprising) tidbits that really drew me into this read. Skaife is the perfect guide to this small but prestigious world of people who live within the grounds of the Tower of London. (And the Beefeaters and their families really do live inside the castle. The drawbridge is pulled up every evening around 11 or so, and then the inhabitants are cut off from the rest of central London for the night.) The Tower is still an official royal palace and yet, despite having lived inside its confines for more than a decade, Skaife still retains his wonder and curiosity which is communicated to the reader throughout the pages.

ravenmaster

Despite the cachet of being a Beefeater (also called the Yeoman Warder), each person who holds this position has at least 24 years of unblemished service with the British military, and then once in this position, warders usually stay there for the rest of their lives until they retire.

Skaife has been doing the Beefeater-ing for the past 15 years or so, and the Ravenmaster-ing for the past eight (or more?) years after completing 24 years as an infantryman (and drum major) in the British Army. He knows his stuff and reports that most of his deployment time as an active soldier was in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles (1970s/1980s), which means that he was frequently at risk from the IRA.

So Skaife came to this position legitimately and having paid his dues. Despite being an infantryman and despite having a patchy formalized education, he succeeded when he joined the army at the (young!) age of 16 and a half. (Good for him, I say.) He’d been veering down the path of trouble in his early years, and his parents were happy to see Skaife doing some honest labor under army discipline.

His time as a full-time professional soldier was spent immersed in military life, but he’d maintained a lifelong interest in history despite his early attitude to formal education. When coming to the end of his army career, there was an opening to be a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, and he applied and was selected.

His job as the ravenmaster (its real job title!) came after years on the job as a Beefeater, and his main job duty now is to look after the seven HUGE ravens who inhabit the castle. Tradition holds that should the ravens ever leave the castle, it will lead to the destruction of the Tower and great harm will come to England, and Skaife’s recollections of how he looks after these birds (and how they look after him) is incredibly interesting. (Luckily, the ravens are happy with the food and the set-up that they have at the Tower, although every now and then, one of the birds tries to make a break for it.)

The day-to-day routine provides a general structure for the narrative, but interspersed is related information to do with the history of the Tower, its ravens and his own life. It’s a fascinating mix, mainly because Skaife seems to be one of the most charming raconteurs in addition to being a self-taught raven expert. He’s self-deprecating, funny, and modest, all of which combine to make the book read experience come across as though you’re having a cuppa tea with one of your friends.

Skaife pulls together mythology and facts about the Tower and about the corvids (name for ravens), and as he recounts his life with the birds, you can’t help but join in with his enthusiasm for his life. (As it turns out, Skaife learns during his research on the job that the ravens haven’t actually been at the Tower for centuries (despite the legend). He thinks that the ravens arrived around the 1880s, and have just stuck around since then. They have a safe living situation for the most part, a steady supply of food and water, and Skaife works to keep the flock as wild as they need to be whilst they’re there at the Tower. He doesn’t clip their wings to force them to stay there (although he does trim their feathers every now and then)…

Skaife honestly seems to be one of the most genial people that I’ve ever read – he’s both convivial and authentic, and so both the reader and the ravens are in good hands with him. Plus – he has an Instagram account as well (ravenmaster1) if you’re interested.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

Me, me, me…

Cover artI apologize for the lack of blog posts lately. The only excuse I have that is remotely worthy is that I’m teaching a new class this semester, which is requiring five billion new PPTs which take some time to put together. (Hyperbole is the best, I think…)

Plus my computer has a mind of its own on occasion and I’ve lost a handful of files which meant I had to recreate them. Grr.

But the upside is that I have a great bunch of students this semester, and I’m also seeing some of my old students from the last few semesters around the building, so I’m enjoying saying hi to them… (Since I’ve only been teaching for the past year, having old students around the building is a new thing for me – I love it.)

In the meantime, I’m getting the new routine sorted out and organizing the work load more efficiently, so all signs point to more blog posts in the future weeks.

I’ve been reading, but just not as much as I did in the summer since there’s been that prep for class (which I don’t mind at all). All the prep also means that I have rather tired eyes at the end of the day, and now I finally understand what my parents and grandparents meant when they said that they were “just resting” their eyes … 🙂

And so, what have I been reading? Well….

I happened to find a brand-new copy of the old kids’ book called “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster (1961) which was quite a clever read. The title doesn’t make my Top Ten reads or anything, but it was a fun non-demanding read and just right for the overload at the beginning of the semester.

Image result for troublemaker leahThen, I moved on to something very different: “Troublemaker”, the autobiography by Leah Remini of her years spent in Scientology. Wow. It’s a very strange way of life and costs thousands of dollars to stay in it, but its attraction, I think, is that it provides a home and a direction for those folks who are feeling a little lost in their own lives. It promises so much – eternity, happiness, riches, saving the world – but the personal cost to each individual is immense.

Remini was in the religion due to her mother being a Scientologist, but when Remini was older, she saw the cult for what it really was, and tried to get out. However, if you’ve grown up in the religion, most of your friends and support system are also Scientologists, and the rule is that a Scientologist who leaves the group must be “disconnected” by their friends and family (i.e., they never speak again), so leaving is a big decision for some people. They lose their family, their friends, their entire support system… What a scary risk.

From the outside looking in (the position that I hold), it’s hard for me to see how otherwise fairly sane humans sign up for this, promising their lives to the religion for a billion years (via reincarnation) and spending gross amounts of money to reach the much-esteemed level of being deemed “clear”, the ultimate goal. (Tom Cruise, naturally, is probably up there by now since financial donations help you move up the ladder. In fact, Remini is not very complimentary of Cruise at all…)

So, this was a fascinating read for me, and in the end, I feel badly for the folks who get sucked into this group. Most are not very wealthy and the religion forces such spending on people that they end up declaring bankruptcy on many occasions. However, I try not to judge anyone as they’re just trying to improve their lives (and others) in many cases, but it actually does the complete opposite of that.

Remini gets out in the end and is in the position (socially and financially) that she can escape without having to suffer some of the huge consequences that others may have to endure. However, her mother and others do disconnect her in the end…

Anyway, I found this to be a fascinating read on human behavior…

For another perspective on Scientology, I would suggest “Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion” by Janet Reitman (2011).

 

Negroland: A Memoir – Margo Jefferson (2015)

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“Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.”

Note: the historical meaning for the term Negroland (or Nigrita) was an old term used in some of the maps of Africa by European map-makers to describe the inland and poorly explored region in West Africa.

Margo Jefferson’s memoir, titled Negroland, addresses the privileges and pains of growing up in a small privileged segment of African-American society, a group that Jefferson calls the black bourgeoisie. This select group of wealthy African-American families called themselves various names: the Colored 400, the Talented Tenth, the colored elite…

Margo_Jefferson_2015No matter what their group name was, it was a world unlike any other for Jefferson and her family. Her father was the head of pediatrics at one of Chicago’s largest black hospitals and her mother played a socialite role, and so Jefferson’s perspective growing up in this rarefied space is unlike most of the other African-American authors whose work I have read in that they did not live in poverty.

This was a challenging read in the end, not because it was hard to read or follow, but because I had mistakenly entered the experience thinking it would be a straight-forward narrative arc, when actually, it’s more of a series of linked and not-linked memories. (I think that this is where some of the reviewers on GoodReads went astray in that they were expecting a fairly chronological read and instead got a more looping and wandering group of events. Several people did not enjoy this at all. It took me by surprise as well, but then I decided to hang on for the ride.)

Jefferson is an intellectual writer and university professor who has been recognized for her critical writing, so this is very well written, and once you get the hang of the book’s style, it works really well. The caveat is that it’s not a traditional read: I was born here, I went to school here, I attended university there… but is much more of a vague and meandering tour of her memories growing up in the era of Jim Crow (and its after-effects) whilst living in a rather removed world of privilege, surrounded by others who were in that same social and racial realm.

It’s a worldview that does not shy away from the indelicate surroundings of race, but one that is also enmeshed in a strict class distinction from other African-American families not so fortunate to have a large bank account. There’s a ripple of dissonance here. Yes, we’ve earned this and we should be allowed to enjoy our good fortune, and we are not going to be held back just because so many others do not have this privileged life.

There’s an uncomfortable push-pull mechanism here in terms of living an African-American upper class life (with the privileges that accompany it), but it’s also a life that seems a bit tenuous at times, in terms of not quite being secure despite their wealth. The surrounding society still has that racial bite that needs to be addressed, and I got the feeling that the Jefferson family are, understandably, irritated and frustrated by this fragile balance despite their healthy bank account and position in their class.

For Jefferson, who grows up in the 1950s and 1960s in Chicago, this insecurity is a heavy burden to bear as she is very aware of how fragile and easily broken this lifestyle of her parents actually is. It’s difficult for her parents (and thus her) to settle in and relax with this set up, and it must have been exhausting trying to balance it all, knowing that a simple racist incident could upset the whole hard-won apple cart. There’s such a responsibility, in some ways, to be more than perfect as “representatives” of successful African-American people in a country that conspired to knock them down at every opportunity.

This wasn’t a comfortable read in any way, but I think that’s the whole point of it for the author. Her whole life has been uncomfortable and ill-fitting in some ways (notably for people outside her own life) so that there is a level of rage below these descriptions of events and of her friends and family, and I think that Jefferson wants you, as a reader, to feel just as out-of-place as she had to.

This was a pretty provocative read for me that I’m still contemplating a few days later.

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(Above) A eighteenth century European map of north African countries,        including Negroland.

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